Megan Stiffler, QLD Fire and Rescue Service, was the first speaker for the day and really set the theme for remainder of the day, through her experiences and the lessons she has derived from them. Megan was deployed to four disasters in 2 months, 3 of them in her home state of Queensland and the other in Christchurch.
Due to weather phenomena in late 2010 and early 2011, Toowoomba, the ‘bowl landscape’ was on the receiving end of a sometimes 60kph flow of water that swept people, cars and houses from the ground and down the valley, where Megan and her colleagues performed vital USAR work.
Directly after Toowoomba it was Brisbane that had 67 suburbs affected by floodwaters, leaving a $20 Billion recovery bill that the state is still reeling from.
Townsville was next to require USAR teams for the Cyclone Yasi event, and Megan’s rendition of her night spent on the second floor of a motel building with the roof lifting and no power had the audience chuckling with the familiar anecdotes of gear preparation and waiting for the callout.
Less funny was Megan’s experience in Christchurch recovering survivors and bodies from the wreckage of the once-pristine city. For those of us who will never be part of a USAR mission, Megan’s daily adventure into a multi-story building for the use of a functioning flush-loo, in a tent-city of mostly male personnel (and not nearly enough portaloos) provided the common bond of all female firefighters; given a choice, we’d prefer separate hygiene facilities, even if that choice means sizing up a compromised building!
This led to the first of Megan’s 10 important lessons that she has to impart, and that is that women are different from men and unisex facilities are less than ideal, though we know how to overcome the challenges when we are working in an environment designed for the male ‘default’. Lessons in putting in effort to receive exponential reward, looking after body and mind (similar to Barbara Etter’s words the previous day), personal accountability, aiming to be paid for the value you bring to every hour that you work so that you “get chosen because you add value” to your organisation, allowing emotions to touch you and for those emotions to provide leadership to your team, to ‘be’ the leader you want to be even when not in a leadership position, harnessing the strength of your team instead of being a ‘lone wolf’ and, finally, “never eat your own”, a lesson in seeking success together with your team, and not against your team members.
Megan is in the process of qualifying for Station Officer, and I see no impediment to her goal. Her aim is to be a firefighter; one who is a woman performing an important task, not to be a women trying to be a man to be a firefighter, because that is an exercise in futility and to deny femaleness is to deny the firefighting industry the value that women bring to it
Following morning tea, sponsored by Fire Brigades Employee Union, Dr Merilyn Childs, a founding figure in the short history of WAFA, presented a visual history of women in firefighting as far back as she has been able to trace and date photographic evidence. Within the humorous images of women depicted as the damsels in distress, and in various stages of undress was contained the interesting narrative of the way firefighters continue to be portrayed in imagery. It is still the ideal of the beefy male firefighter saving the life of the vulnerable, as symbolised by womanhood and childhood. The prevailing imagery would have us believe that women in firefighting is a recent invention that goes against nature’s intentions. If it were not for the existence of early photos of female fire brigades that Merilyn presented, it would be easy to subscribe to this belief. Photographers and image makers favour the macho stereotype and replicate it endlessly and where women are depicted in turnout gear it is predominantly in a highly sexualised manner; even the one that is purportedly selling brassieres to female consumers. Her emphasis is that the imagery of the male firefighter is unambiguous throughout history, and the imagery of women in firefighting is very ambiguous in intent and meaning. Merilyn’s call to arms is that it is OUR history and our stories and we have the power to make a change in how we are portrayed and how we depict ourselves in our respective agencies. Her quest is to find the earliest, traceable photograph of women in firefighting.
Following our first two speakers the conference broke into two lots of three concurrent sessions. The first three were Donna Wheatley of Metropolitan Fire Brigade of Victoria on “Support at the Growing Edge”, “The Barriers are Real Enough” by Jim Casey of the Fire Brigade Employees Union of NSW, “Fitting In or Standing Out?” by our very own WAFA Pres, Tamara Campbell of Forests NSW. The second sessions were Sue Collins of F&RNSW (Bathurst) with “In Command – The Role of the Frontline Officer”, Juli Poole of Airservices Australia (ACT) with “Airservices Culture Change Program” and Julie Ahern of Social Leadership Australia with “Surviving”. All were very well attended and the decisions on which ones to attend were not easily come to.
After lunch, sponsored by our very own Country Fire Authority, the delegates separated into either a workshop with Carol Fox of Life Performance on “How to Deal Effectively with Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime” or John McDonough of F&RNSW on “Compartment Fire Behaviour Training”. These both received rave reviews, although John’s session was distracted by the fun Carol’s group was having next door. During the break for afternoon tea, sponsored by ACT Emergency Services, we were asked what was so funny. As one who had opted for Carol’s session, I must agree that it not only sounded like we were having fun, we were having fun, so there. That said, those delegates whose experience is mainly wildfire based gained much knowledge of structural firefighting, so all excitement was not lost to the Carol Crowd.
A break after these sessions afforded delegates time to frock up and attend the much-anticipated Conference Dinner, sponsored by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. We had the pleasure of securing Melbourne’s wickedly titillating Sue-Ann Post, who had some of us laughing furtively into our napkins, and others of us in uproarious laughter.
At the dinner a special presentation was made to Dr Merilyn Childs and to Barbara Lewis; two women who were the driving forces behind the formation of WAFA and its incorporation. I still have my letter sent by Barbara announcing the news of the incorporation, with all the excitement and sense of responsibility that came with it. The current WAFA board awarded these two luminaries with inaugural Life Membership, and the dynamic duo were humble and deservedly satisfied with their recognition, as are we, the current crop of flag-bearers.
No more shall be said of this evening because if you didn’t have a ticket to attend then what happens at WAFA Conference post-dinner, stays at WAFA Conference…unless you happened to see the photos on the Facebook page – is nothing sacred?
I was kindly sponsored by CFA to attend the conference and many phone hours were spent at Korumburra FB organising my responsibilities to help get the conference off the ground. – big appreciation to both CFA and my home brigade for their understanding and support. Host Jurisdiction sponsorship was provided by CFS and MFS (SA), and Conference sponsors were Fire & Rescue NSW (Platinum), Air Services and NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (Gold Sponsors), Country Fire Authority and NSW Rural Fire Service (Silver), AFAC, NSW Fire Brigade Employees Union and ACT Emergency Services Agency (Bronze), and without our valued agencies our conference cannot be offered, so thank you for your support.
Iznaya Kennedy is a CFA firefighter with Korumburra Fire Brigade, CFA Chairmans Challenge alumni and has been a WAFA board member since 2010, among other things. CFA is in the process of providing guidelines for establishing a network of CFA women across the state, which will be a valuable resource for brigades, groups and districts, as well as at an individual firefighter level. Any members wishing to know more about WAFA and how to connect with cross-agency women in firefighting for inspiration, professional networking or mentoring may visit the website at www.wafa.asn.au, or ‘like’ the Women And Firefighting Australasia Inc Facebook Page. Be a part of the exciting evolution of firefighting in Australasia.